The Slants share history fighting for free expression

Shreya Ravi | Mercury Staff

Simon Tam and Joe Jiang shared an evening of music and passion with Comets on Feb. 2. They were invited on campus by Dean of EPPS

Quentin Tarantino and Simon Tam — one iconic filmmaker and one visionary musician with seemingly no relation — ignited a controversial band name and a case for trademark rights that found its way to the Supreme Court. Spanning almost a decade, The Slants’ journey from courtroom warriors to concert hall champions unfolded at the University Theater.

Hosted by the School of Economic Political and Policy Sciences, The Slants performed on Thursday, February 2, 2023. Led by author and musician Simon Tam and guitarist Joe X. Jiang, the rock synthpop band shared their quest for trademark protection on their band name in a dazzling fusion of songs and storytelling. After the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office denied protection to the band’s name in 2013, citing it as offensive to people of Asian descent, the band pursued legal action, with Tam appealing the decision and eventually bringing the case to the Supreme Court.

“At the end of the day, I got to do more than I ever imagined was possible,” Tam said. “And now we can effect change in a much bigger way than ever thought possible through our nonprofit and things like that. “For that, I’m very very happy.”

The concert served as a stage for the duo to showcase their unique narrative. Tam said the name was inspired by an iconic scene in Tarantino’s film “Kill Bill,” the first time Tam saw Asians depicted as powerful in a major American film. His determination to challenge stereotypes was born from this lack of representation of Asian Americans in mainstream media. Thus, The Slants emerged, with the name coining a feature Tam noted many Asians have – slanted eyes.

Against a backdrop of pulsating blue cerulean and vibrant purple lights, the dimming lights promptly signaled the start of the concert at 6:10 p.m. and a blanket of quiet fell over the audience. The Slants were not just another band — they were on a mission. This was not merely a concert; it was a convergence of art, activism and defiance against cultural stereotypes, with each chord resonating in an unwavering spirit and commitment to their cause. Tam and Jiang unleashed a torrent of raw emotion and unapologetic authenticity as the performance was accompanied by a slideshow in the background, supplementing the narrative with a short scene from the Tarantino film that motivated Tam, pictures of the band at the Supreme Court performing and facts relating to their case.

One of the standout moments came during the song “From the Heart.” This song, which expresses themes of defiance and resistance, served as a letter to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which the Slants performed on the steps of the Supreme Court in while fighting for their trademark in 2017. Tam instructed the audience to say ‘no’ every time he pointed to them, allowing the members and the audience to sing together and feel the sense of defiance in this upbeat song. The Slants won their case Matel v. Tam in June 2017, with the Supreme Court affirming the band’s right to trademark their name.

Associate Dean Douglas Dow shed light on the controversy surrounding the band’s name, emphasizing its deliberate provocation and its significance as a punk rock gesture. Dow said that the band’s reclamation of the term “slant” could spark discussions on the power of language and the complexities of cultural representation at UTD.

“Thinking about what it means to represent one’s self… All of us get hurt by words, all of us feel limited by words, all of us have spoken in ways with intent or an absence of intent to hurt others,” Dow said. “Who we are as social beings is bound up with language and names. I see a very real connection between this issue and a lot of the debates that are going on on campus, in communities, in churches and across the nation regarding pronouns and whether or not individuals should represent or should respect another’s request to be addressed using the pronouns of their choice.”

Tam’s reflections on his journey from childhood to the music industry maverick emphasized The Slants’ unwavering commitment to beliefs and passion for social justice. In a poignant moment, Tam shared his struggles with discrimination and bullying, laying bare the raw vulnerability beneath the bravado. It was a reminder that behind the glitz and glamour of the stage, The Slants were fighting a deeply personal battle—one that resonated with each member of the audience, inspiring a sense of solidarity and purpose. For UTD students and attendees, The Slants’ narrative served as a poignant reminder of the importance of standing up for one’s beliefs and embracing one’s identity.

The band remains committed both to creativity and to social change, with an upcoming tour for Slanted: An American Rock Opera as well as ongoing initiatives with The Slants Foundation, their nonprofit.

“Everyone has a story to tell, and that story is valuable,” Tam said. “I found that a lot of people, especially Asian Americans or anyone who’s been bullied or felt like an outsider could understand what we go through … we all know what it feels like to be belittled or cut in half. “You can do something about this. You have agency and it’s worth enduring the difficulties, to do it. So that’s why I tell my particular story.”

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